Discovering Sacred Texts: Islam
Our film on Islam explores four of the five pillars of Islam – the Muslim profession of faith (shahada), prayer (salat), charity (zakat), and fasting during Ramadan (sawm) – and how Muslims in Britain follow them today.
The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.
Some rights reserved. © British Library Board / British Library
Rania Hafez: The main sacred text of Islam is the Qur’an, which was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad 1,400 years ago. It was revealed in instalments, by the Angel Gabriel, and it took about 23 years before the whole before the whole book was revealed to the Prophet, and the Prophet would recite it as it was revealed to him. So, to us, to Muslims, the Qur’an is not written by humans, it is not amended or commented on by the Prophet, it is simply a direct transmission from the Divine to us humans, through angels, through the Prophet Muhammad.
Colin Baker: This is the British Library’s oldest Qur’an manuscript, and one of the oldest Qur’ans in the world. It dates from the eighth century, about 150 years after the death of the Prophet. No Qur’an manuscript from this period has survived intact completely, but what we have here is one of the largest fragments, about two thirds of the Qur’an’s text.
Shaykh Naveed Arif: For Muslims the Qur’an is a way of life, so it sets down for us not only rules, how do we live our life and what is permissible for us, and what is impermissible, but general advice as well on how we should live. It also tells stories of previous nations, the story of Jesus Christ, peace be upon Him, and his mother Mary, and Moses and Noah, all these similar stories that you will find in the Bible, these narratives, the Qur’an tells those same stories. But they’re told for, in a way, to remind us, as believers, as human beings, not to fall short in our worship to God.
Rania Hafez: So the Qur’an is far more than just a sacred text, it is a blueprint for life. And it is a historic document, as well as a document of philosophy, of law, and of moral values.
Shaykh Naveed Arif: As Muslims we were commanded to pray five times a day. The prayers are spread throughout the day and follow the motion of the sun, so a prayer before sunrise, end of sunrise. Then you have a prayer at the zenith, when the sun is at its highest point in the sky, you have a late afternoon prayer, when the sun is coming down, then you have a sunset prayer when the sun is actually set, then you have a night time prayer, when it’s gone completely dark. You can pray as much as you wanted to, you can pray all day long if you wanted to, but those are the five minimum prayers which we have to do, which are one of the pillars of Islam.
Rania Hafez: The Shahada is a declaration of faith but also a declaration in the belief in the unity of everything in the universe. So when you say lā ʾilāha ʾillā llāh – there is no God but God – what we are saying is that everything in creation is connected, everything is one, and that really is a very important principle of Islam: the unity of everything in creation.
Colin Baker: This is one of the British Library’s most beautifully decorated and ornamented Qur’ans, and this book was commissioned by Sultan Baybars at the beginning of the fourteenth century. It really is a magnificent piece of illumination, calligraphy, design. Islamic art is essentially beautifying the sacred text, that is to say writing down the sacred text in a beautiful calligraphy and illuminating it. And it’s very abstract, there is no human or animal representation.
Shaykh Naveed Arif: Zakat is third pillar of Islam, and it is very, very important for Muslims all around the world. It is tradition that was started by the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon Him, 1,400 years ago. In practical terms Zakat aims to purify one’s wealth and it’s devised so that the rich that are blessed with wealth are not holding on to their wealth, they are sharing that wealth with the less fortunate in society.
Rania Hafez: So we give charity, which is a percentage of wealth, or income, once a year, to the poor.
Shaykh Naveed Arif: The Qur’an has very clearly directed Muslims around the world on how Zakat can be distributed and can be used. Amongst them are the poor and needy, and spending in the cause of God, and the cause of God can be striving to understand the religion or in terms of development work or community engagement, community development. In recent history, we have seen the tragedy of Grenfell in 2017. So a lot of people gave Zakat to Islamic Relief specifically for the Grenfell tragedy and Islamic Relief administered Zakat at home? to help the survivors of the Grenfell tragedy. Taking from the rich and giving to the poor has been emphasised in the Qur’an, and there are many, many evidences in Qur’an and Hadith.
Shaykh Naveed Arif: Hadith is one of our sources of law in Islam, so Hadith plays a huge role for us in terms of understanding the Qur’an, because there are some verses in the Qur’an which are quite general, so we use the Hadith to make those verses specific, or to get better understanding of why those verses were revealed. But also for us as a source of law, where we derive rulings.
Rania Hafez: We pray five times a day but the Qur’an doesn’t tell us to pray five times a day. The Qur’an doesn’t tell us how to do our prayer. This was collated or reported from what the early Muslims did, and what the Prophet did. So that’s why the Hadith is really important.
Rania Hafez: The fourth pillar is fasting in the month of Ramadan. It is one month of the year when we are required to abstain from food and drink, from dawn to sunset. It’s really a month of detox, spiritual detox.
Omar Salha: Muslims fast during the month of Ramadan because they were commanded to by God. In the Qur’an God commands Muslims to fast in order to attain God consciousness. The relationship with Muslims and the Qur’an is a very holy one during the specific month of Ramadan. So many Muslims will attempt to complete a whole Qur’an in terms of its reading. Fasting binds the Muslim community together, through purely when we come to break our fast, we do so through communal gatherings, whether it’s in our local mosque or a community centre, or out here in a park for instance.
Rania Hafez: Islam is not a culture it’s a prism through which we look at our culture, our history, our moral values, and particularly in Britain today we will find that the Muslim community is so diverse in terms of the ethnic background or people, the cultural practices, the languages. To me the beauty of Islam is the diversity of the Muslim community across the world.
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The Qur’an, the sacred text of Islam, is believed to be the Word of God as revealed to the Prophet. Here Dr Mustafa Shah describes the historical context of its revelation, its transmission and codification and its shared spiritual heritage with the other main Abrahamic faiths.
Prayer is one of the five pillars of Islam. This article by Dr Amjad Hussain explains common features of Islamic prayer, such as the call to prayer, daily timings and the direction of prayer. He also explores the linguistic, geographic and sectarian diversity of prayer in Islam.
Muhammad is the Prophet of Islam. Professor Walid Saleh explains the role of prophecy in Islam, discussing the primacy of the Prophet Muhammad and his life, as well as exploring other biblical and Arabian prophets present in the Qur’an, and the tradition of literature about them.
Hajj is the most well-known pilgrimage in Islam. Here Dr Sophia Arjana discusses its role in the religion, whilst also looking at Shi‘a and regional pilgrimages, sainthood and sacred space in Islam.
As the unadulterated Word of God, the Qur’an is sacred to Muslims everywhere. Learn more about Qur’an and its content, and Islam’s other important sacred texts, such as the Hadith and Sunna.
Explore the lives of women in the sacred texts of the world’s major faiths, and the changing ways in which women contribute to religious practice in contemporary society.
Whether retold from one generation to the next, or written down from one language into another, some sacred texts have evolved while others have remained the same throughout time, enriching and informing the lives of those that read them.